Candidates Ignore Europe at Their Peril
In stump speeches and debates, the U.S. presidential candidates only bring up Europe to make domestic political points or highlight the dangers of Islamic State terrorism or immigration. But ignoring the other major part of what is commonly known as "the West" is a mistake.
If European countries are mentioned at all on the campaign trail, it is in passing. Senator Hillary Clinton says that "only China, Germany and the U.S." can be the sustainable energy power of the future, and she wants it to be the U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, her Democratic rival, says Germany offers free university education to its citizens, so the U.S. can afford it, too.
Among Republican contenders, Senator Marco Rubio mocks Sanders by saying that the self-described socialist should be running for office in one of the Scandinavian countries. In an early debate, former Governor Jeb Bush made a quip about French working hours to highlight Rubio's spotty attendance record in the Senate, and then had to apologize for the remark. Donald Trump likes to say that France has the "toughest gun laws in the world," which failed to prevent the terror attacks in Paris last year. He also has called Brussels "a hellhole" because of its large immigrant population. (In addition, he has said that Paris is "not what it was," and that the London police are afraid of radical Muslims.)
That's pretty much it.
Electioneering, of course, is mainly about domestic issues. But it would be wrong to assume that foreign policy doesn't matter in the 2016 election. One reason that Ben Carson, one of the early Republican front-runners, has plummeted in the polls is that he's been incoherent and gaffe-prone on foreign policy. Sanders is criticized for having a limited understanding of the topic, especially compared with former Secretary of State Clinton. No candidate debate goes without at least some discussion of international issues.
The threat from Islamic State is the dominant one. Then there's Iran: The more hard-line Republican candidates denounce the accord reached by the Obama administration and demand a tougher stand. Senator Ted Cruz sums up the position in stump speeches: "If someone says they want to kill you, believe them." It never fails to get a laugh.
North Korea and its nuclear program often come up and Russia gets a mention once in a while, mainly as a threat because of President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine and his efforts to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These are security issues, and they arise when the candidates vie to present themselves as best would-be commander-in-chief.
To some candidates, notably Trump, there's also China, which is allegedly getting the better of the U.S. in economic negotiations.
Europe, however, is mostly a non-issue. The prevailing mood among candidates is that it should be left to deal with its own problems. It's a European issue, Trump says about Ukraine. It's a European issue, Governor John Kasich says about the refugee crisis. The only candidate to have taken a pre-election European trip is Bush, who failed to impress his audiences, unlike candidate Barack Obama in 2008, when he had a triumphant tour.
These days, European leaders get the impression that even the Obama administration is uninterested in their problems.
Yet it is imperative for the U.S. to show a lot of goodwill toward Europe. It is in its vital interests to keep the European Union together and ensure its success. The EU is the biggest U.S. trading partner, with three times as much U.S. investment as all of Asia. If it fell apart, the economic effect on the U.S. would be immediate. Among other things, individual European countries would be free to engage in a cutthroat tax competition, creating a sucking sound for U.S. companies the likes of which no protectionist can imagine.
European disunity also allows Putin's Russia and other ugly regimes to make inroads in the West, corrupting its financial system, destabilizing its politics and creating the potential for conflict.
The U.S. needs a strong European policy. It should use its powers of persuasion to get the U.K. to integrate deeper into the Union, rather than seek veto powers and opt-outs. U.K. rejectionism is a major threat to European stability, and instability won't benefit the U.S. in any way. America also should lean on Poland, the most U.S.-oriented country in eastern Europe, to help get the recalcitrant region in line on immigration and refugees: It is not in the U.S. interest for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to fail in her efforts to resolve the crisis through a pan-European solution.
The U.S. should also pitch in to resolve the crisis, which partly arose from its own military interventions in the Middle East. As the Republican candidates often point out, that includes the U.S. backed regime change in Libya, which led to the emergence of the huge refugee-trafficking industry in that country.
The success of the European integration project is essential to the peaceful existence of the Western world, which the U.S. claims to lead. That leadership would lose its meaning if Europe were to disintegrate into smaller, self-interested parts. That would be a disaster, not a reason for schadenfreude and not one of those "European issues" the presidential candidates like to ignore.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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